It is a well-known fact that camera lens aperture is one of the three variables (shutter speed and ISO are other variables) used to control the camera’s exposure. But, it is also one of the most useful variables for creative nature photography. Beginner nature photographers are so focused on using aperture settings for controlling depth of field and exposure that they often ignore the creative aspect of the using aperture.
And who can blame them? It is not always easy to use depth of field and aperture setting as a creative variable. Aperture settings on your DSLR or mirrorless camera controls the exposure as well as depth of field in your photo. It is this ability to control the depth of field that allows nature photographers to get creative with their aperture setting. However depth of field in your nature photo also depends upon where you focus and focal length of your camera lens. Using aperture as a creative variable requires out-of-box thinking and bit of experimentation.
Here are some tips for using aperture to capture creative nature photos.
#1: Play with Depth of Field
One of the first things you learn is that camera aperture aperture can be used to play with depth of field. And this property of aperture is very useful to simplify your photos. To use this effect for nature photographs, you must select your focus carefully.
In the first image above, I used an aperture setting of f/13 to get the trillium flower sharply in focus. However, by using this aperture, I could also include the cluttered background in the image even though the focus was carefully set on the trillium flower. Now compare this with the second image above where I used an aperture setting of f/4 to capture the same flower. Here the background clutter is greatly reduce, but so is the depth of field. For this image I carefully selected my focus to be on the stamen of the flower even it this meant that only part of the flower is in focus.
You can also combine selective focus with narrow DOF field at wide apertures to isolate a single element from its environment.
Here is a photo that I took in Kootenay National Par in Canada at the time fireweed plants were in full bloom in the forest. I wanted to isolate a single fireweed flower from the rest. I used an aperture of f/4 and focused on the fireweed flower growing in the foreground. This allowed me to blur the background and isolate a single flower from others growing in the area.
#2: Create Artistic Effects with your Aperture Settings
In the previous example, my intent was clearly to simplify the image by using shallow DOF created by a wide camera lens aperture (small f-number). However, you can use a shallow depth of field to create a sense of place or a dreamy effect in nature photography.
In the above image from Hellissandur, Iceland, I used a shallow camera lens aperture of f/2.8 to soften both the background and the foreground. I set my focus on the church at the top of the hill, while I let both the foreground and background blur by using an aperture setting of f/2.8. The final result was an artistic and moody nature photo of a spectacular location.
#3: Creative use of Bokeh at Wide Aperture
Bokeh is the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas in your nature photos. Different camera lenses create different types of bokeh. By choosing the right camera lens and aperture setting you can create some artistic nature photos. Take a look at the first image below of the flower captured in the botanical gardens in Costa Rica. The over-exposed highlight in background in this photo were created by flowing water captured at f/8. This image looks like a snapshot of the flower.
Now compare this with the second image of the same flower captured using aperture of f/2.8. This aperture completely changed the look and feel of the background. Using this aperture, Varina was able to change the over-exposed streaks of highlights to soft round Bokeh. Additionally, she was using a Lensbaby’s Velvet lenses that produced a soft glow around her subject giving it an artistic look.
#4: Creating a Sunstar with a Narrow Aperture
Just as a wide aperture setting produces the bokeh effect a narrow aperture setting will produce a sunstar (or starburst) effect. Sunstar is caused when the light bends around the blades of very small aperture. The quality and the number of blades of the sunstar will depend upon the camera lens you are using and the aperture settings. So you will have to experiment with different f-numbers to find the perfect aperture setting that works for your camera lens.
In this photo from Morocco, Varina used an camera lens aperture of f/22 to add a sun star to this gorgeous landscape photography location. Creating a sunstar with a narrow aperture may introduce an unwanted lens flare and artifacts due to dust on the front elements of your camera lens. We use a high quality camera lens that has special coatings to minimize camera lens flare and cleans the front element of our camera lens when we are trying to capture a sunstar using a large f-number.
#5: Experiment with Aperture Settings
The above examples are all using narrow aperture settings for creative nature photography. However, your choice of camera lens aperture setting to be creative in any given situation varies tremendously. It is also difficult to predict which aperture setting will work best in any given scenario. For this reason, rely on experimentation to get creative with our aperture settings.
In this example from Fiji, I used an aperture setting of f/7.1 and a close focusing distance to create a soft out of focus background using narrow depth of field. My subject was the white shell in the foreground. I got down low to the ground and close to the shell. Using an aperture of f/7.1 allowed me to keep the shells sharply in focus and the background blurred. By controlling the distance between my camera and the shell, I created just the right amount of blur to give this photo a sense of place.
Using aperture setting as a creative variable does not mean that you don’t have to think about how camera lens aperture interacts with focus and exposure. It means that you must develop a workflow that allows you to harness the power of aperture settings for creative nature photography and control the exposure and focus at the same time. Our Creative Photography with Aperture tutorial focuses on using your aperture settings to create a portfolio of imaginative and expressive nature photography. You’ll have access to step-by-step case studies that allow you to watch as we use our aperture to create real world nature photos in field. We teach the concepts in straight-forward, non-technical terms.
Do you use aperture as a creative variable for nature photography? If not what are you waiting for?